Israel and Genocide, Part 2: Murder by Numbers
THE TOTAL NUMBER of Israelis and Palestinians killed, in over half a century of conflict, is approximately 15,000. This includes all of the fatalities on both sides. The great majority of these have been armed enemy combatants.
I urge you to check these numbers for yourself. They are academically sound — we have nowhere near the uncertainty that we have regarding, for instance, Stalinist Russia. The Polynational War Memorial calculates a total of 14,500, from 1948-2009. Add 272 casualties reported by B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) to bring us from 2009 to the present: 14,772. You can round that up to 15,000.
At the Memorial, the link to the Conflict Database at the University of Uppsala is broken: if you would like to go into the raw data — and you should, if you have any doubts — the dataset can be downloaded here. The various sources are examined in “The PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset.” For the most accurate figures from 1987 to the present, consult “Statistics at B’Tselem.”
If you’re concerned about sources — and you should be — B’Tselem’s figures have been criticized as biased in favor of the Palestinian cause, and Uppsala University, the source for the rest of the data, is more likely to have an anti-Israel bias than not. Nevertheless, both groups strike me as decent, academically rigorous liberals, who care about the truth. If their sympathies were to distort data, it certainly would not be in Israel’s favor.
So: 15,000. The number of civilian casualties, on both sides, is a fraction of this: You will find no credible source placing that number in the five figures.
I shall also leave it to you to determine whether Israel targets civilians. Do your own research. Assume the very worst. You will be disappointed, but you will find allies. This is a good starting point: “Targeting Toddlers,” an article in the left-wing Village Voice.
If 15,000 is the total for all lives lost, Palestinian and Israeli, armed and non-combatant, then the figure for unarmed civilian fatalities on the Palestinian side is what? You are welcome to try to whittle this figure down further. The truth is that you could devote your life to parsing this, and remain unsatisfied. The numbers are distorted by propagandists on both sides; they deal with ill-defined categories (what constitutes an armed combatant if there is no regular army?) All I can say with certainty is that the number of Palestinian non-combatants killed, since the founding of Israel, is in the four figures.
This should not be trivialized: Whether it is 4,000 or 8,000, we are talking about thousands of human beings, each an innocent civilian, loved and mourned. The difference between 6,000 and 6,001 is, to that person’s family, everything.
What is beyond certain, however, is that this total is — relative to the world’s genocides and relative to the size of the populace — astonishingly low. It is even surprisingly low relative to minor wars. For the likes of Norman Finkelstein in particular, it is scandalously low.
If you consider Israel to have committed anything that looks remotely like genocide, you are embracing an ignorance that is inseparable from the most vulgar forms of prejudice. It is so patently counterfactual that you cannot even call it bad history: It is simply slander. While it may not be anti-Semitism, always — not strictly speaking — it shares more than a little with the notorious blood libel: It is a lie calculated to conjure the image of the murderous Jew.
This fiction is not confined to a handful of demagogues. It is miserably pervasive. Search engines are notoriously imprecise, of course: When you plug the two words “Palestinian” and “genocide” into Google together, you will get thousands of results that do not promote this thesis, or have anything to do with the topic. Perhaps the large majority are completely unconnected. That is not very comforting, however, when you are talking about well over 13 million hits.
If we are attacking straw men here, it is a militant empire of straw men.
For evidence, we can restrict ourselves to just one of the myriad of websites that come up, like this one you’re reading now. We hear the following from Huffington Post ”Level 2 Super User” “stevecaudill”: “The supposedly ‘chosen’ group considers all non-members as lesser human. [sic] And thus, the ‘chosen’ elite have no moral qualms about inciting racist genocide.”
If you consider Israel a genocidal nation, you are either incapable of distinguishing between a pond and an ocean, or you are — more likely — a bigot.
I am not simply referring to the fact that the Palestinian people are very much alive: Israel-haters conceptualize this as a botched genocide. I am referring to the fact — the hard, numeric, undeniable fact — of how many Palestinians have died in the conflict with Israeli Jews over the course of six decades. This toll would be an afternoon’s work on the part of any actually genocidal people.
Every day during the Rwandan massacre, 10,000 civilians were murdered. Mostly with machetes. Despite much more efficient and appalling weaponry, the civilian tally in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — including deaths on both sides — has not reached that daily figure in over half a century.
There is certainly much to criticize in Israel. The plight of the Palestinians is very real, and some Israelis have evinced bigotry bordering on fascism: In particular, the most virulent among the settlers of the West Bank. The settlers account for 4.1 per cent of Israel’s total population, however, and they are not homogeneous in their attitudes towards the Palestinians.
The Haredim, the ultra-religious, form some 10 per cent of the populace, and while the worst of them still revere Rabbi Meir Kahane — whose fascist Kach party has been outlawed in Israel — the Haredim cannot be counted on for toxic anti-Palestinian views: some are in fact hostile to Zionism.
There are other ways of identifying extremism in Israel: For instance, the centre-right Likud party has about 135,000 registered members, 22,000 of whom are identified as “ideological” — that is, hardline nationalists. (Both of these numbers have been rising rapidly in the last couple of years, which is truly disturbing.) Add to those the membership of smaller parties entirely made up of ultra-nationalists and hard-right religious zealots. There is no question that Israel harbors a minority of extremists, and some of them are venomous.
Full disclosure: I do not like these people. At all. I never have. In case there is any doubt, my research here is predicated on an unwavering principle: An innocent Palestinian life is as valuable as an innocent Israeli life. Period. The loss is equal. It is obscene to suggest otherwise.
If I were an Israeli, I would be spending much of my time campaigning against the right wing. Israel’s liberal population may be disheartened at the moment, much as Democrats were under Bush, but it remains powerful. I assure you I would be working with them towards dismantling the settlements, and hammering out a two-state solution. In fact, I do just that to the best of my abilities, as a Canadian Jew in Mexico.
That, needless to say, is not good enough. It does not redeem me. Especially as a novelist: I am expected to share certain opinions. How can I not hate this country?
Some years ago, although I generally have principles, I found myself teaching at a writers’ workshop. One night I escaped to go drinking with two of my partners in snake oil. They were interesting men: one white, the other black, and both famous for their fierce dissection of colonial hypocrisy. The first was from Australia and the second from Britain, but it quickly became clear that they knew each other well. They went to the same parties in London and in New York. They name-checked the same people. They agreed on important issues.
That made three liberals at the table. Or so I imagined.
The Australian — an important, perhaps even a great novelist — mentioned an even more famous American writer, and noted that she was hopeless: “Israel.” The British writer sighed and shook his head, in complete sympathy. I did not sigh. I was expected at the very least to shake my head. When I did neither, the weather changed. Nothing was said, but we know when a warm conversation is no longer. Was I perhaps ignorant? Worse: Were they seated with a Zionist? The chill between us has lasted after since.
It would have been complicated, to say the least — culturally and racially — but in retrospect I feel cowardly for not confronting this celebrated post-colonial firebrand: a white Australian raised, as they all are, on aboriginal land.
Not that I can pretend to higher national ground. I am a Canadian, and our treatment of the indigenous — our reservation system — is said to have been studied by South Africa as an inspiration for apartheid. Still, I prefer guilt to hypocrisy.
Martin Luther King — although his heart was in the right place (always) — probably had this wrong: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.” The truth is more subtle: Israel-hatred is not anti-Semitism. It has its own character. It cannot always be reduced.
This hatred takes a form, ironically, that is rooted in Jewish philosophy: a problem called “The Scandal of Particularity.” I do not pretend to have the learning to do it justice, but it concerns, in brief, the concept of being chosen: How can one people stand apart, with regard to their relationship to a universal God?
Chosenness is not entirely desirable. Emil Fackenheim, the Jewish philosopher, once related a parable in class: At Mt. Sinai, what God in fact did was levitate the mountain over the heads of the Israelites, while asking them — in tones more appropriate to the Godfather — whether they accepted His offer to become the Chosen People.
It is a good thing the Jews have a sense of humour. The paradox at the core of our being is in fact funny. When it is not being evoked to hang us from hooks and flay us.
Israel hatred arises from a perverse secular strand of the same problem. How can one nation define itself by reference to a single religion? Other nations enforce religious and ideological purity much more severely than Israel — through religious law, or expulsion, or slaughter — but there is something uniquely troubling about this one country. Israel is a modern state, founded on the principles of democracy, with a legal system based mostly in common law, yet it has this paradox at its centre. This is, in fact, the Scandal of Particularity: an appeal at once to Kantian universality (our common ethic, as defined by our humanity) and chosenness (the Jewish people).
It is an interesting paradox. Historically, it has stood quietly in the shadows behind every argument for the elimination of the Jews.
Of course, for some, Israel hatred is in fact an expression of anti-Semitism. If you want an archetype — a symbol of this group so grotesque that it borders on a cartoon — you can have Dr. Aribert Ferdinand Heim, whose practice at the Mauthausan concentration camp arguably places him in that circle of hell even below Dr. Mengele’s.
“Dr. Heim was accused of performing operations on prisoners without anesthesia; removing organs from healthy inmates, then leaving them to die on the operating table.” If a prisoner at Mauthausan showed particularly superb dentition, Heim would “kill the prisoner with an injection, cut his head off, leave it to cook in the crematorium for hours, until all the flesh was stripped from the naked skull, and prepare the skull for himself and his friends as a decoration for their desks.”
Heim was for a long time the most wanted of the living Nazi war criminals. The Simon Wiesenthal Center assumed he was in South America. Only after he died in 1992 was it ascertained that Dr. Aribert Heim had lived out his final years, peacefully, in Egypt. There he apparently spent most of his time obsessing about the Jewish lobby in America, and what he considered the “massacre” of the Palestinians.
We have to make a clear distinction between this ghoul and many of the hundreds of thousands worldwide who happen to share his views, some of them quite humane liberals. Israel haters occupy a spectrum, from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran — whose soul probably has much the same shade as Heim’s — to, for instance, a perfectly nice musicologist who runs a Bob Dylan site in Sweden, but makes a point of blocking Israeli IP addresses from gaining access. Somewhere in between you have the famous Normal Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors — who has said, as I noted above: “Sometimes I feel that Israel has come out of the boils of hell, a satanic state.” (His mother survived Majdanek. His father Auschwitz.)
My only hope here is to persuade the liberals: the novelists and musicologists of the world. Monstrous anti-Semites are a different species of hardened bigot, and I cannot expect to put a scratch in the surface of their hatred. Norman Finkelstein is also probably beyond the powers of persuasion. He is a complex phenomenon, and I genuinely pity him: It cannot have been easy to be the son of survivors. He was in fact one step removed from the boils of hell. I do not want to imagine the ghosts that sat in the empty chairs at the family dinner table, always ready to whisper in the silence between conversation.
It is undeniable, however, that many good-hearted liberals lean very much on Finkelstein for their views. They imagine he speaks for them. Hence, when Norman Finkelstein describes Israel as “Genghis Khan with a computer,” it is your moral duty to do some simple math.
Civilians killed by Israel in fifty years (most of them not deliberately targeted), number at most a few thousand. Genghis Khan — despite computer illiteracy — is responsible for what was almost certainly the greatest bloodbath in pre-modern history. Finkelstein is not merely exaggerating. He is not using poetic license. He is carefully and viciously slandering an entire people.
The quotation above is excerpted from this: “I have some good friends and their families there, and of course I would not want any of them to be hurt. That said, sometimes I feel that Israel has come out of the boils of hell, a satanic state.”
It is worth taking a brief look at the boils of hell. By coincidence, the concentration camp that Finkelstein’s mother survived — Majdanek — is associated with the largest single massacre in the history of the death camps. “Operation Harvest Festival” was punishment mostly for the uprising in Treblinka: part of it involved rounding up and shooting 18,000 Jews. In a single day. In one methodical operation — in one location — more people were deliberately butchered than all of the Palestinians and Israelis who have died in the conflict, soldiers and civilians, in fifty years. In one day.
Operation Harvest Festival lasted for two days, however. And it was not restricted to Majdanek. By the end of the second day, 42,000 Jews had been exterminated.
So much for “the boils of hell.” Arguably, however, it is the first part of Finkelstein’s statement — the generous, sympathetic remark — which is the most revolting: “I have some good friends and their families there, and of course I would not want any of them to be hurt.”
Let us be utterly clear. The famous blood libel in Europe was no mere insult: It was responsible for centuries of misery. Jews were, yes, hurt. They were in fact exiled, tortured and slaughtered, based on the widely accepted belief that they murdered gentile children and used the blood in the Passover service.
The widely accepted belief that Israel is a genocidal nation is not quite the same, true. It is worse. It is far worse. Finkelstein does not use the word “genocide” here, but — even though he does not want to see any of his good Israeli friends hurt — he would have you believe that the Israeli state is comparable to Genghis Khan’s Mongols, who butchered millions, who slaughtered three out of every four people on the Iranian Plateau.